IN THIS CHAPTER AN ATTEMPT WILL BE MADE TO SET FORTH in some detail the amillennial view of the millennium described in Revelation 20. Before we look closely at Revelation 20, we should first concern ourselves with the question of the interpretation of the book of Revelation as a whole. The system of interpretation of the book of Revelation which seems most satisfactory to me (though it is not without its difficulties) is that known as progressive parallelism, ably defended by William Hendriksen in More Than Conquerors, his commentary on Revelation.452 According to this view, the book of Revelation consists of seven sections which run parallel to each other, each of which depicts the church and the world from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of his second coming.
The first of these sections is found in chapters 1-3. John sees the risen and glorified Christ walking in the midst of seven golden lamp-stands. In obedience to Christ’s command John now proceeds to write letters to each of the seven churches of Asia Minor. The vision of the glorified Christ together with the letters to the seven churches obviously form a unit. As we read these letters we are impressed with two things. First, there are references to events, people, and places of the time when the book of Revelation was written. Second, the principles, commendations, and warnings contained in these letters have value for the church of all time. These two observations, in fact, provide a clue for the interpretation of the entire book. Since the book of Revelation was addressed to the church of the first century A.D., its message had reference to events occurring at that time and was therefore meaningful for the Christians of that day. But since the book was also intended for the church through the ages, its message is still relevant for us today.
The second of these seven sections is the vision of the seven seals found in chapters 4-7. John is caught up to heaven and sees God sitting on his radiant throne. He then sees the Lamb that had been slain taking the scroll sealed with seven seals from the hand of the one sitting on the throne, indicating that Christ has won a decisive victory over the forces of evil, and is thus worthy of opening the seals. The seals are now broken, and various divine judgments on the world are described. In this vision we see the church suffering trial and persecution against the background of the victory of Christ. When one asks, How do we know when one of these seven parallel sections ends (except for the first one, which forms an obvious unit), the answer is that each of the seven ends with an indication that the end-time has come. Such an indication may be given in terms of a reference to the final judgment at the end of history, or to the final blessedness of God’s people, or to both. At the end of this section we have both. There is a reference to the final judgment in chapter 6:15-17, “Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?'”
But there is also a description of the final blessedness of those who have come out of the great tribulation in chapter 7:15-17, “Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The third section, found in chapters 8-11, describes the seven trumpets of judgment. In this vision we see the church avenged, protected, and victorious. This section ends with a clear reference to the final judgment: “The nations raged, but thy wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, for rewarding thy servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear thy name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (11:18).
The fourth section, chapters 12-14, begins with the vision of the woman giving birth to a son while the dragon waits to devour him as soon as he is born—an obvious reference to the birth of Christ. The rest of the section describes the continued opposition of the dragon (who stands for Satan) to the church. We are introduced here to the two beasts who are the dragon’s helpers: the beast out of the sea and the beast out of the earth. This section ends with a figurative description of Christ’s coming for judgment: “Then I looked, and lo, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat upon the cloud, ‘Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.’ So he who sat upon the cloud swung his sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped” (14:14-15).
The fifth section is found in chapters 15-16. It describes the seven bowls of wrath, thus depicting in a graphic way the final visitation of God’s wrath on those who remain impenitent. This section also ends with a reference to the final judgment: “The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered great Babylon, to make her drain the cup of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found” (16:19-20).
The sixth section, chapters 17-19, describes the fall of Babylon and of the beasts. Babylon stands for the worldly city—the forces of secularism and godlessness which are in opposition to the kingdom of God. The end of chapter 19 depicts the fall of the dragon’s two helpers: the beast out of the sea, and the false prophet, who appears to be the same figure as the beast out of the earth (see 16:13). Once again we see clear references to the end-time at the end of this section. Chapter 19:11 describes the Second Coming of Christ: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.” Later in the chapter the final punishment of the dragon’s two helpers is set forth: “And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who sits upon the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had worked the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur” (19:19-20).
The seventh section, chapters 20-22, narrates the doom of the dragon (who is Satan), thus completing the description of the overthrow of the enemies of Christ. The final judgment and the final punishment of the wicked are depicted at the end of chapter 20: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it…. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done…. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (vv. 11-12, 14-15). In addition, this section describes the final triumph of Christ and his church, and the renewed universe, here called the new heaven and the new earth.
Note that though these seven sections are parallel to each other, they also reveal a certain amount of eschatological progress. The last section, for example, takes us further into the future than the other sections. Although the final judgment has already been briefly described in 6:12-17, it is not set forth in full detail until we come to 20:11-15. Though the final joy of the redeemed in the life to come has been hinted at in 7:15-17, it is not until we reach chapter 21 that we find a detailed and elaborate description of the blessedness of life on the new earth (21:1-22:5). Hence this method of interpretation is called progressive parallelism.
There is eschatological progression in these seven sections not only regarding the individual sections but also regarding the book as a whole. If we grant that the book of Revelation depicts the struggle between Christ and his church on the one hand and the enemies of Christ and the church on the other, we may say that the first half of the book (chaps. 1-11) describes the struggle on earth, picturing the church as it is persecuted by the world. The second half of the book, however (chaps. 12-22), gives us the deeper spiritual background of this struggle, setting forth the persecution of the church by the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. In the light of this analysis we see how the last section of the book (20-22) falls into place. This last section describes the judgment which falls on Satan, and his final doom. Since Satan is the supreme opponent of Christ, it stands to reason that his doom should be narrated last.
We are now ready to proceed to the interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6, the only passage in the Bible which speaks explicitly of a thousand-year reign. Note first that the passage obviously divides itself into two parts: verses 1-3, which describe the binding of Satan; and verses 4-6, which describe the thousand-year reign of certain individuals with Christ.
The premillennial interpretation of these verses understands them as describing a millennial reign of Christ on earth which will follow his Second Coming. And it is true that the Second Coming of Christ has been referred to in the previous chapter (see 19:11-16). If, then, one thinks of Revelation 20 as setting forth what follows chronologically after what has been described in chapter 19, one would indeed conclude that the millennium of Revelation 20:1-6 will come after the return of Christ.
As has been indicated above, however, chapters 20-22 comprise the last of the seven sections of the book of Revelation and therefore do not describe what follows the return of Christ. Rather, Revelation 20:1 takes us back once again to the beginning of the New Testament era.
That this is the proper interpretation of these verses is clear not only from what has been developed above, but also from the fact that this chapter describes the defeat and final doom of Satan. Surely the defeat of Satan began with the first coming of Christ, as has already been clearly spelled out in chapter 12:7-9. That the millennial reign depicted in 20:4-6 occurs before the Second Coming of Christ is evident from the fact that the final judgment, described in verses 11-15 of this chapter, is pictured as coming after the thousand-year reign. Not only in the book of Revelation but also elsewhere in the New Testament the final judgment is associated with the Second Coming of Christ.453 This being the case, it is obvious that the thousand-year reign of Revelation 20:4-6 must occur before and not after the Second Coming of Christ.
Let us now take a closer look at Revelation 20:1-6. We begin with verses 1-3:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while.
In these verses we have a description of the binding of Satan. The dragon, here clearly identified as “the Devil” or “Satan,” is said to be bound for a thousand years, and then thrown into a place called “the bottomless pit” or “the abyss” (ASV, NIV). The purpose of this binding is “that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended.”
The book of Revelation is full of symbolic numbers. It would seem rather likely, therefore, that the number “thousand” which is used in this passage ought not to be interpreted in a strictly literal sense. Since the number ten signifies completeness, and since a thousand is ten to the third power, we may think of the expression “a thousand years” as standing for a complete period, a very long period of indeterminate length. In agreement with what was said above about the structure of the book, and in the light of verses 7-15 of this chapter (which describe Satan’s “little season,” the final battle, and the final judgment), we may conclude that this thousand-year period extends from Christ’s first coming to just before his Second Coming.
Since the “lake of fire” mentioned in verses 10, 14, and 15 obviously stands for the place of final punishment, the “bottomless pit” or “abyss” mentioned in verses 1 and 3 must not be the place of final punishment. The latter term should rather be thought of as a figurative description of the way in which Satan’s activities will be curbed during the thousand-year period.
What is meant, now, by the binding of Satan? In Old Testament times, at least in the post-Abrahamic era, all the nations of the world except Israel were, so to speak, under Satan’s rule. At that time the people of Israel were the recipients of God’s special revelation, so that they knew God’s truth about themselves, about their sinfulness, and about the way they could obtain forgiveness for their sins (though it must be admitted that this knowledge was given to them in types and shadows, so that it was incomplete). During this same time, however, the other nations of the world did not know that truth, and were therefore in ignorance and error (see Acts 17:30)—except for an occasional person, family, or city which came into contact with God’s special revelation. One could say that during this time these nations were deceived by Satan, as our first parents had been deceived by Satan when they fell into sin in the Garden of Eden.
Just before his ascension, however, Christ gave his disciples his Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). At this point one can well imagine the disciples raising a disturbing question: How can we possibly do this if Satan continues to deceive the nations the way he has in the past? In Revelation 20:1-3 John gives a reassuring answer to this question. Paraphrased, his answer goes something like this: “During the gospel era which has now been ushered in, Satan will not be able to continue deceiving the nations the way he did in the past, for he has been bound. During this entire period, therefore, you, Christ’s disciples, will be able to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations.”
This does not imply that Satan can do no harm whatever while he is bound. It means only what John says here: while Satan is bound he cannot deceive the nations in such a way as to keep them from learning about the truth of God. Later in this chapter we are told that when the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations of the world to gather them together to fight against the people of God (w. 7-9). This, however, he cannot do while he is bound. We conclude, then, that the binding of Satan during the gospel age means that, first, he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel, and second, he cannot gather all the enemies of Christ together to attack the church.
Is there any indication in the New Testament that Satan was bound at the time of the first coming of Christ? Indeed there is. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan, Jesus replied, “How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?” (Matt. 12:29). Interestingly enough, the word used by Matthew to describe the binding of the strong man is the same word used in Revelation 20 to describe the binding of Satan (the Greek word de). One could say that Jesus bound the devil when he triumphed over him in the wilderness, refusing to give in to his temptations. Jesus’ casting out of demons, so he teaches us in this passage, was evidence of this triumph. One could counter that the binding of Satan mentioned here is reported in connection with the casting out of demons rather than in connection with the preaching of the gospel. But I would reply that the casting out of demons is an evidence of the presence of the kingdom of God (Matt. 12:28), and that it is precisely because the kingdom of God has come that the gospel can now be preached to all the nations (see Matt. 13:24-30, 47-50).
When the seventy returned from their preaching mission, they said to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name.” Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:17-18). These words, needless to say, must not be interpreted as suggesting Satan’s literal descent from heaven at that moment. They must rather be understood to mean that Jesus saw in the works his disciples were doing an indication that Satan’s kingdom had just been dealt a crushing blow—that, in fact, a certain binding of Satan, a certain restriction of his power, had just taken place. In this instance Satan’s fall or binding is associated directly with the missionary activity of Jesus’ disciples.
Another passage which relates the restriction of Satan’s activities to Christ’s missionary outreach is John 12:31-32: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” It is interesting to note that the verb translated “cast out” (ekball) is derived from the same root as the word used in Revelation 20:3, “and threw (ball) him [Satan] into the pit.” Even more important, however, is the observation that Satan’s being “cast out” is here associated with the fact that not only Jews but men of all nationalities shall be drawn to Christ as he hangs on the cross.
The binding of Satan described in Revelation 20:1-3, therefore, means that throughout the gospel age in which we now live the influence of Satan, though certainly not annihilated, is so curtailed that he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel to the nations of the world. Because of the binding of Satan during this present age, the nations cannot conquer the church, but the church is conquering the nations.
We go on now to verses 4-6, the passage dealing with the thousand-year reign:
(4) Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life (ezsan), and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (5) The rest of the dead did not come to life (ezsan) until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. (6) Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years.
We noted previously that verses 1-3 speak of a “thousand-year” period. We now observe that verses 4-6 also refer to a period of a thousand years. Though it is possible to understand the “thousand years” of verses 4-6 as describing a period of time different from the “thousand years” of verses 1-3, there is no compelling reason why we should do so, particularly not since the expression “the thousand years” (ta chilia ete) occurs twice, once in verse 3 and once in verse 5. We may therefore safely assume that verses 1-3 and verses 4-6 concern the same “thousand-year” period. That period, as we saw, spans the entire New Testament dispensation, from the time of the first coming of Christ to just before the time of Christ’s Second Coming.
Let us now take a closer look at verse 4: “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed.” The first question we must face here is, Where are these thrones? Leon Morris points out that in the book of Revelation the word “throne” is used forty-seven times and that all but three of these thrones (2:13; 13:2; 16:10) appear to be in heaven.454 When we add to this consideration the fact that John sees “the souls of those who had been beheaded,” we are confirmed in the conclusion that the locale of John’s vision has now shifted to heaven. We may say then that whereas the thousand-year period described in these six verses is the same throughout, verses 1-3 describe what happens on earth during this time, and verses 4-6 depict what happens in heaven.
John sees those to whom judgment was committed sitting on thrones. The book of Revelation is much concerned about matters of justice, particularly for persecuted Christians. It is therefore highly significant that in John’s vision judgment (or “authority to judge,” NIV) is committed to those sitting on the thrones. John’s description of them as “sitting on thrones” is a concrete way of expressing the thought that they are reigning with Christ (see the last part of v. 4). Apparently this reigning includes the authority to make judgments of some sort. Whether this means simply agreeing with and being thankful for the judgments made by Christ, or whether it means that those sitting on the thrones are given the opportunity to make their own judgments about earthly matters, we are not told. In any event the reigning with Christ described here apparently includes having some part in Christ’s judging activity. That reigning and judging may sometimes go together is also evident from Christ’s words to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28).455
We ask next, Who are seated on these thrones? In order to answer this question, we must look ahead in the passage and observe that those whom John saw in this vision are said to have “come to life” (v. 4) and are distinguished from “the rest of the dead” in verse 5. John, in other words, has a vision about certain people who have died, whom he distinguishes from other people who have also died. As we examine verse 4 carefully, it would appear that John sees here two classes of deceased people: a wider group of deceased believers, and a narrower group of those who died as martyrs for the Christian faith.
The first sentence of verse 4 describes believers who have died, whom John sees as seated on thrones, sharing in the reign of Christ and exercising their authority to make judgments. This reigning is a fulfillment of a promise recorded earlier in the book of Revelation, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:21, NIV).
As the vision continues, however, John sees a specific group of deceased believers, namely, the martyrs: “Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.” The words “the souls of those who had been beheaded” obviously refer to martyrs—faithful Christians who had given up their lives rather than to deny their Savior. This passage is, in fact, a kind of parallel to an earlier passage in the book, Revelation 6:9, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” When John adds that those here portrayed “had not worshiped the beast or its image,” he is further describing Christian martyrs. For from Revelation 13:15 we learn that those who refused to worship the image of the beast were to be killed.
The vision, therefore, concerns the souls of all Christians who have died, but in particular the souls of those who paid for their loyalty to Christ by dying martyrs’ deaths.456 If one should ask how John could see the souls of those who had died, the answer is, John saw all this in a vision. One could just as well ask, How could John see an angel seizing the devil and binding him for a thousand years with a great chain?
Now follow the most controversial words in the passage, “They came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Premillennial interpreters, whether dispensational or nondispensational, understand these words as describing a literal, physical resurrection from the dead, and therefore find in this passage proof for a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth after his Second Coming. Is this the correct interpretation of the passage?
It must be granted that the Greek word translated “came to life,” ezsan, can refer to a physical resurrection (see, for example, Matt. 9:18; Rom. 14:9; II Cor. 13:4; Rev. 2:8). The question is, however, whether this is what the word means here.
That John is speaking of a kind of resurrection here is apparent from the second sentence of verse 5, “This is the first resurrection”—words which obviously refer to the living and reigning with Christ of verse 4. But is this “first resurrection” a physical resurrection—a raising of the body from the dead? It would seem not, since the raising of the body from the dead is mentioned later in the chapter, in verses 11- 13, as something distinct from what is described here. Premillennialists understand what is described in verses 11-13 as the resurrection of unbelievers which, they claim, occurs after the millennium, since the resurrection of believers has taken place before the millennium. The separation of the resurrection of unbelievers from that of believers by a thousand years, however, must be challenged, particularly in view of Jesus’ words in John 5:28-29, “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” [italics mine].457 Further, the contention that the resurrection depicted in Revelation 20:11-13 is solely the resurrection of unbelievers cannot be proved. Though it is said that if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (v. 15), these words do not prove that none of those who were raised had his name written in the book of life. We conclude that what is described at the end of chapter 20 is the general resurrection, and that what is described in the last clause of 20:4 must be something other than physical or bodily resurrection.
What is meant, then, by the words “they came to life (or lived, ASV), and reigned with Christ a thousand years”? The clue has already been given in verse 4a. There John said, “I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed.” The rest of the verse makes plain that those sitting on the thrones were the souls of people who had died—believers who had remained true to Christ and, specifically, martyrs who had sealed their faith with their lives. This is the group which John sees as “living and reigning with Christ.” Though these believers have died, John sees them as alive, not in the bodily sense, but in the sense that they are enjoying life in heaven in fellowship with Christ. This is a life of great happiness—see, for example, Paul’s words about the state of believers between death and resurrection in Philippians 1:23 and II Corinthians 5:8.458 It is a life in which these deceased believers sit on thrones, sharing in the reign of Christ over all things, even sharing in his judging activity.
We therefore understand the word ezsan (lived, or came to life) in verse 4 as describing the fact that the souls of believers who have died are now living with Christ in heaven and sharing in his reign during the intermediate state between death and the resurrection. The thousand-year period during which these souls live and reign with Christ is, as we saw, the entire gospel era, from the first coming of Christ to the Second Coming. In other words, the millennium is now, and the reign of Christ with believers during this millennium is not an earthly but a heavenly one.459
George Eldon Ladd objects to the interpretation given above, maintaining that the word za (the present form of ezsan) is never used in the New Testament to describe souls living on after the death of the body.460 I believe, however, that there is at least one such usage in the New Testament, in the twentieth chapter of Luke. To the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection of the body, Jesus quoted the words which God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob” (v. 37, quoting Exod. 3:6). Jesus then added these words, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (v. 38, NIV). Jesus thus proved the doctrine of the resurrection of the body from the Pentateuch, which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative.
For our purpose, however, it is significant that, according to Josephus, the Sadducees denied not only the resurrection of the body but also the continued existence of the soul after death: “But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: that souls die with the bodies….”461 Note now that in his reply Jesus corrected not only the Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection but also their denial of the existence of the soul after death. Jesus’ words, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” imply that in some sense the patriarchs are living even now, after their death but before their resurrection. This point is made explicit by the last clause of verse 38, “for to him all are alive” (pantes gar auto zsin). The tense of the word rendered “are alive” (zsin, a form of za) is not future (which might suggest that these dead will live only at the time of their resurrection) but present, telling us that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are in some sense living now. Though to us they seem to be dead, to God they are alive. Calvin’s comment on the words “for to him all are alive” supports this interpretation: “This mode of expression is employed in various senses in Scripture; but here it means that believers, after they have died in this world, lead a heavenly life with God…. God is faithful to preserve them alive in his presence, beyond the comprehension of men.”462 Here, then, we do have an instance outside of the book of Revelation of the use of the Greek word za to describe the living on of the soul after the death of the body and before the resurrection.463
To be sure, we can find no other uses of za with this meaning in the book of Revelation outside of chapter 20. There is, as we saw, at least one use of za in Revelation where it means bodily resurrection (2:8). But there are a number of instances in Revelation where this word is used with a meaning other than that of bodily resurrection. In 4:9-10, 7:2, 10:6, and 15:7, for example, za is used to describe the fact that God lives forever; and in 3:1 the word is used to describe what we might call spiritual life.
There is, however, a parallel in the book of Revelation to the thought content of 20:4, as interpreted above. I refer to what is found in chapter 6:9-11: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” Note the striking parallel between “the souls of those who had been beheaded” (in 20:4) and “the souls of those who had been slain” (in 6:9). Both visions concern deceased martyrs. The souls of the deceased martyrs described in 6:9-11 are apparently conscious and capable of being addressed; they are given white robes and are told to be at rest. The white robes and the resting suggest that they are enjoying a provisional kind of blessedness which looks forward to the final resurrrection. This is very much like the situation of the souls described in chapter 20, who are said to be living and reigning with Christ while waiting for the resurrection of the body. Although the word lived (ezsan) is not used in 6:9-11, the situation described in those verses is certainly parallel to the situation described in 20:4. The only difference is that the souls of deceased martyrs in chapter 6 are told to be at rest, while the souls of deceased martyrs in chapter 20 are said to be living and reigning with Christ. But in both chapters the souls of deceased believers are said to be living between death and resurrection. I conclude that there is a precedent in the book of Revelation for interpreting 20:4 as has been done above.464
We can appreciate the significance of this vision when we remember that in John’s time the church was sorely oppressed and frequently persecuted. It would be of great comfort to the Christians of John’s day to know that though many of their fellow-believers had died, some even having been cruelly executed as martyrs, these deceased brothers and sisters in the faith were now actually alive in heaven as far as their souls were concerned, and were reigning with Christ.
There is no indication in these verses that John is describing an earthly millennial reign. The scene, as we saw, is set in heaven. Nothing is said in verses 4-6 about the earth, about Palestine as the center of this reign, or about the Jews. Nothing is said here about believers who are still on earth during this millennial reign—the vision deals exclusively with believers who have died. This millennial reign is not something to be looked for in the future; it is going on now, and will be until Christ returns. Hence the term realized millennialism is an apt description of the view here defended—if it is remembered that the millennium in question is not an earthly but a heavenly reign.
The next sentence, verse 5a, is of a parenthetical nature, and is therefore properly put between parentheses in the New International Version: “The rest of the dead did not come to life (ezsan) until the thousand years were ended.” The word ezsan as it is used in this sentence must mean the same thing that it meant in the preceding sentence. In neither case does the word mean bodily resurrection. John is here speaking about the unbelieving dead—the “rest of the dead,” in distinction from the believing dead whom he has just been describing. When he says that the rest of the dead did not live or come to life, he means the exact opposite of what he had just said about the believing dead. The unbelieving dead, he is saying, did not live or reign with Christ during this thousand-year period. Whereas believers after death enjoy a new kind of life in heaven with Christ in which they share in Christ’s reign, unbelievers after death share nothing of either this life or this reign.
That this is true throughout the thousand-year period is indicated by the words “until the thousand years were ended” (achri telesthe ta chilia et). The Greek word here translated “until,” achri, means that what is said here holds true during the entire length of the thousand-year period. The use of the word until does not imply that these unbelieving dead will live and reign with Christ after this period has ended. If this were the case, we would have expected a clear statement to this effect. Note that we find the expression “until the thousand years were ended” also in verse 3 of this chapter. There, however, the expression is followed by a clear statement indicating that something different will happen after the end of the thousand years: “After this he [the devil, whose binding has just been described] must be loosed for a little while.” In verse 5, however, the words “until the thousand years were ended” are not followed by another statement indicating that these dead will live or come to life after the thousand years are over.465
Later in this chapter, however, we do have clear teaching on what happens to these unbelieving dead after the thousand years are finished. What happens to “the rest of the dead” at that time is described in verse 6 as “the second death.” When it is said in verse 6 that the “second death” has no power over the believing dead, it is implied that the “second death” does have power over the unbelieving dead. What is meant by “the second death”? Verse 14 explains: “This is the second death, even the lake of fire” (ASV). The second death, then, means everlasting punishment after the resurrection of the body. As far as the unbelieving dead are concerned, therefore, there will be a change after the thousand years have ended, but it will be a change not for the better but for the worse.
Now John goes on to say, “This is the first resurrection” (v. 5b). These words depict what happened to the believing dead whom John was describing at the end of verse 4, previous to the parenthetical statement just discussed. In the light of what was said above, we must understand these words as describing not a bodily resurrection but rather the transition from physical death to life in heaven with Christ. This transition is here called a “resurrection”—an unusual use of the word, to be sure, but perfectly understandable against the background of the preceding context. This is indeed a kind of resurrection, since people who are thought to be dead are now seen to be, in a very real sense of the word, alive. The expression “the first resurrection” implies that there will indeed be a “second resurrection” (though this expression is not used) for these believing dead—the resurrection of the body which will take place when Christ returns at the end of the thousand-year period.
John now continues, in verse 6, “Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection.” The next words give the reason for this blessedness: “Over such the second death has no power.” The second death, as we saw, means eternal punishment. These words about the second death imply that the “first resurrection” which John has just mentioned is not a bodily resurrection. For if believers should here be thought of as having been physically raised, with glorified bodies, they would already be enjoying the full and total bliss of the life to come, in which “death shall be no more” (Rev. 21:4), and it would not need to be said that over them the second death has no power.
“But they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years” (v. 6b). During this entire “thousand-year” period, therefore, the believing dead shall worship God and Christ as priests and shall reign with Christ as kings. Though John is here thinking only about the period which extends until Christ returns, the closing chapters of Revelation indicate that after Christ’s return and after the resurrection of the body these believing dead shall be able to worship God, serve God, and reign with Christ in an even richer way than they are now doing. They shall then worship and serve God throughout all eternity in sinless perfection with glorified bodies on the new earth.
This then, is the amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6.466 So understood, the passage says nothing about an earthly reign of Christ over a primarily Jewish kingdom. Rather, it describes the reigning with Christ in heaven, between their death and Christ’s Second Coming, of the souls of deceased believers. It also describes the binding of Satan during the present age in such a way that he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel.